Our Jason Isbell, Ourselves

Jason Isbell delivered one of the strongest records in 2013, and in doing so, he helped redefine the parameters of Americana.

Jason Isbell


Label: Southeastern
US Release Date: 2013-06-11
UK Release Date: 2013-06-12
Artist Website

Above: Publicity photo for Southeastern (2013)

Though he probably felt some sting at the time, Jason Isbell’s departure from Drive-By Truckers in 2007 is inarguably the best thing that happened to the Alabama native. Post-Truckers, he’s written consistently high watermark songs that have established him as one of the best voices in American music and not just a third voice in one of the best bands in American music.

During his tenure with that act he was the bridge between Mike Cooley’s carefully refined and highly poignant material and Patterson Hood’s stream-of-gut narratives, visceral yarns that called to mind the Southern literary tradition that birthed Flannery O’ Connor and William Faulkner and snaked its way through music such that it made room for the winding, hypnotic verses of Yankees such as Bob Dylan.

Isbell drew characters that praised the Tennessee Valley Authority (“T.V.A.”), the same organization that broke men Cooley sang about (“Uncle Frank”). Whereas some would have painted the sentimental in broad strokes, he opted for a pointillist route, not unlike the more subtle and interesting writers emerging from Nashville in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His ability to recognize the wisdom of tradition and marry it with humor frequently resulted in heartbreakingly beautiful material (“Outfit”, from his 2003 debut with the Truckers, Decoration Day). Other times, he married the urban and the rural, not unlike the soul music made in the region of Alabama where he was raised (“Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South).

It’s those elements that remain most characteristic of his work and which populate his brilliant 2013 release Southeastern. No one can accuse Isbell of taking the easy route there, though. His 2007 debut, Sirens of the Ditch, was at times louder and angrier than one might have expected (“Brand New Kind of Actress”, “Try”) but also saw Isbell delivering songs that any writer of any time would be happy to have in their quiver: the breakup bawler “In A Razor Town” and “Dress Blues” (written about a young man from Isbell’s hometown who was killed in the war in Iraq.

Joined by The 400 Unit in 2009, he penned several more outstanding tracks on that year’s self-titled release, including “Streetlights”. The subsequent Here We Rest (2011) seamlessly blended his disparate influences and found him sounding more comfortable than ever before as he unleashed a series of songs that would have had a stranglehold on radio in a bygone era, whether “Alabama Pines”, “Codeine”, or “Save It For Sunday”. If there had been any question as to whether he could make it without the Truckers, Here We Rest laid those concerns to rest for once and for all.

Moreover, he proved himself an artist who was not above throwing his audience off the scent of easy classification. Though those aforementioned songs certainly made the case for understanding Isbell’s artistic ambitions and drive, others, such as “Go It Alone” and his cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” on a live recording from the era, proved that he wasn’t going anywhere quietly.

But the path to those albums was one that saw the artist walking some rugged ground. By early 2012, years of hard partying had begun to catch up with him. Like a number of artists before him he sought sobriety, and as happened for a handful of those writers, he emerged from his early sobriety with material that found him in stronger form than ever.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between Isbell’s Southeastern and John Hiatt’s Bring the Family. Both find the artists face-to-face with their audience on the sleeve and meet the listener heart-to-heart in the grooves. But where Hiatt opened his record with a salute to escape (“Memphis In the Meantime”), Isbell offered clear-eyed observations on high intimacy with “Cover Me Up”. Like Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love”, the tune addresses the more frightening corners of intimacy, namely the reality that within any coupling there is a shared loneliness that no one else can understand.

If Hiatt’s record was filled with songs mostly about a man getting to know himself, Isbell’s record is about how we connect with others. “Flying Over Water” finds our narrator traveling with his lover and embracing her and her fears and promising to embrace rather than run from his own. After searching for a plane’s liquor cart, he suggests that diving into a bottle won’t help. The penalty, of course, is the loss of that shared experience, even if it’s one filled with tension and fear and the unwelcome appearance of one’s own frailties.

And though the album’s title suggests a specific location, the songs often take us to locations far and wide. The songs are not always about a lack of roots but instead are very often filled with longing for those very roots, as heard in “Traveling Alone” or “Stockholm” and perhaps most apparent in “New South Wales”, a song Isbell wrote about some time he spent on the road with fellow singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle.

In it, two men spend their days adrift, trying to make sense of a life they alternately wanted yet can’t fully understand. They are, we learn, far from their mothers and prone to enjoying weak cocaine and Tequila. In the end, it’s the shared experience—one that might yield future songs—that is the greatest reward.

Much has already been said about “Live Oak” and how the opening (and closing) lines (“There’s a man who walks beside me/ it is who I used to be/ And I wonder if she sees him/and confuses him with me”) speak to a newly sober man’s desire for and fear of intimacy. The revelations the narrator makes are about a man with wild and wicked intentions, but it may just as well be a veiled story about a musician who’s fallen prey to the wicked ways of the road and is faced with reconciling that with the tenderness his lover knows.

Such are the concerns that populate “Different Days” and the haunting but healing “Relatively Easy” and the album’s greatest and perhaps darkest track, “Elephant”, which tells the story of a woman struggling with cancer and the man who keeps her company, watching as she travels from a free spirit to an empty shell of the woman she once was, incapable of the joys of singing, barely able to laugh about much anymore. It’s perhaps the most haunting because it touches on one of our greatest fears in those moments of intimacy: What will happen when we change? Whether it’s cancer or sobriety or the end of a love affair (“Songs That She Sang in the Shower”), these changes either provide the ultimate relief or the ultimate discomfort and we never know, standing on this side of them, which will lead to which.

This is the greatest gift that Isbell has given us with his songs—whether on Southeastern or other collections—the ability to acknowledge our fears and the permission to embrace them, even if from behind the mask of a four minute song. He's a songwriter who is not afraid of the sentimental but never becomes swallowed by sentimentality, a writer who steps into the darkness but never loses the light, and a voice that seems capable of having the answers but is, like all humans, limited in its omniscience.

It’s hard to know where the future will take Isbell or what other journeys he can take us on, but there’s something about the purity of his songs and the strength of his character that suggests he’s one of those writers who has and will continue to define his generation. One who has done so without irony, without succumbing to the temptations of writing about the easy matters of life.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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